Understanding People’s Needs

Two basic kinds of people exist in the world. Knowing this is useful because it explains why certain types of people can never be fully happy with other types of people. I am indebted to Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters, who gave me the idea of these two types of interactional patterns based on bonding experiences in infancy.

The deep difference between these two types explains the puzzlement and guilt some people feel when they say, “I know they love me, but…” referring to loved ones whom, for some strange reason, they just don’t like being around. But you can be loved and still not feel loved in the way that matters most to you.

Let’s call one type of people Attachers. More than most people, they need the presence of others and are emotionally stabilized and mood-regulated by having loved ones physically available. Their relationships are important to them because they feel more secure and less empty when their attachment person is there. The physical presence of their attachment person can feel so psychologically essential that the Attacher can become quite demanding in the relationship. In its most extreme form, this dependency could be expressed in coercive control, stalking, or even crimes of passion, in which the loved one is attacked if she tries to leave. In a milder form, this kind of attachment can result in intrusiveness and blithely expecting the other person to want the same things the Attacher wants.

If the attachment person tries to express different needs, the Attacher may attempt to get her back in shape through criticism, shaming, or guilt. Attachers may also value people primarily for the role they play in their life and lose interest if the person no longer has the qualities the Attacher has come to depend on. It is a sure bet Attachers will look a replacement if they do lose interest.

Attachers have limited imagination about the inner subjective experience of other people. Trying to get them to understand another person’s feelings and emotional needs is an exercise in frustration. They may seem to understand what you are talking about, but it does not alter their behavior. Yes, they love you (i.e., are emotionally attached), but they have limited ability and interest to empathize with what your individual experience might feel like to you. They focus on externals and activities as the important things in life and respond to your unhappiness by trying to convince you that you should feel differently (if it is different from what they want you to feel.)

Attachers also love “buffers,” which are other people or activities that make close emotional interaction with one person impossible. An overly active social life, travel, workaholism, or addictions are all ways that Attachers focus on distracting sources of stimulation that do not require sustained, close emotional connection.

We all started out as Attachers because this is the type of emotional relationship that babies have. Consequently, even if you are not primarily an Attacher type, everyone can slip back into that mindset when they are stressed, sick, or scared. The question is whether or not you ever leave that level and seek meaningful emotional intimacy by recognizing and delighting in the individuality of other people.

Relaters are what we could call the other type of person. Relaters are more self-aware, plus they are more conscious of other people’s inner experience. They automatically imagine how other people feel and how things will affect them. They can’t help but put themselves in others’ shoes, even if it is not to their advantage. For instance, their empathic sensitivity often makes it hard for Relaters to set firm boundaries with intrusive or controlling types because they don’t want to make others feel hurt or rejected.

Relaters have a strong need to feel seen and understood for what is going on inside them. When they find someone who looks into their soul and who responds to their need for emotional attention and communication, they come fully alive. They cannot feel fulfilled without these deeper relationships.

For Relaters who are in a family or marriage relationship with an Attacher type, they may feel disloyal for not being able to feel emotionally fulfilled with someone who obviously needs and values them. In these relationships, Relaters are confused by why they feel so emotionally bored when all their other needs may be met. Relaters typically attempt to have deeper emotional communication with the other person, but they often end up feeling frustrated and misunderstood.

Relaters are the people who leave a relationship with guilt and confusion, knowing they can’t hack it any longer, but not knowing what the real problem was. After all, the other person seemed fine with how things were—and they were.

It is easier for a Relater to understand the needs of an Attacher than the other way around. It probably has not occurred to most Attachers that there is more to life than good company, family, and activity. They may feel hurt and misunderstood too when the Relater expresses repeated frustration over a lack of emotional intimacy and communication. To make such a relationship work, the Attacher has to realize that life can be deeper and richer than they imagined, and they may require help learning how to identify and deal with their own feelings and the feelings of others.

But if it does not work out, it may just be that the two types miss each other’s wavelength. There are plenty of Attachers out there in long-term happy relationships, where both people thrive on that kind of security and familiarity. In order for Relaters to be deeply fulfilled, however, they will need to find another Relater who isn’t afraid of emotion or opening up. Just being the source of the other person’s security will never be enough to keep the Relater’s fires going.

Each type is legitimate in its own way, and it may be asking too much to expect long-term satisfaction between such different types of people. No one is really the bad guy when this difference is the basis of the problem.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Call 757-490-7811 for info.

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